Migration and industrialization. Processes that shaped Chicago and its surroundings

On the first day of our study tour to the Upper Midwest, we had a chance of meeting Professor Kathleen Neils Conzen of Chicago University, who delivered a lecture on historical immigration patterns to the rural and urban centres in the Midwest. At the very beginning, three questions were raised: what caused ethnic peopling of this region, how complex is the history of immigration after World War II, what general truth can be said about immigration processes, and can we draw parallels to historic patterns.
Chicago has long been known as an ethnic city. From the 1840s to 1870s business and professional people arrived from New England and elsewhere in the Northeast and constituted most of the early civic elite. Also, from 1820 to 1880 one can observe an intensive immigration flow to the North Midwest from many parts of the world, mainly Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. It was a part of a migration phenomenon known as the second great wave of migration to the USA. From 1830 to 1880 one can observe a heavy immigration of German and Irish immigrants, moving from East to West, in search for land. They were followed by the Poles, who were moving from, for example, Panna Maria in Texas to suburban Chicago, as well as Czechs, Lithuanians, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, and Chinese. This great wave of migration lasted until Congress closed the door in the 1920s. In 1920 14.5 per cent of the US population was foreign born, and 24 per cent of US population was the second generation of immigrants. In the Midwest the percentage of second generation was even higher – in Illinois it was 32.2 per cent, in Wisconsin 42 per cent, and in Milwaukee 44.5 per cent.
The major pull factor for migrants was free land close to markets, but also employment perspectives in pine forests, lead and copper mines, which resulted in great ethnic diversity of the region. Since the 1840s influx of people to the North Midwest had been also facilitated by the opening of cheap water transport.
Movement of migrants for land in this period should be called rather colonisation than immigration since settlers were coming to America without an aim to become Americans, but rural people continuing social patterns from Europe. Social traditions of Southern and Eastern and Central Europe were also maintained by church-oriented organisations which often organised and migration to and settlement in the USA. The difference was economic success that America was offering migrants. Current land law made it easy to maintain a land, there were also employment opportunities in canal constructions and railroad building – they attracted mainly unskilled migrants, from example, from Ireland. In its first 50 to 75 years, Chicago was perfectly situated between America’s industrializing Northeast and rural West; it was also becoming a centre of transport system linking West with East, and an important centre of meatpacking and grain processing. Chicago’s period of most rapid growth coincided almost exactly with Europe’s mass migration to the Americas. Chicago’s industries always needed cheap labour and from 1890 to 1920, half of the 400,000 workers were occupied in iron and steel, meatpacking, the clothing industry, railroading, or electrical machinery. The city was already half foreign-born in 1860, and by 1890, 79 per cent of people living in Chicago were foreign born or were children of immigrants.
Since the population in rural areas was growing, and land was stable, the 2nd and 3rd generations of migrants were moving to the cities, usually to Chicago, where they were seeking for jobs in heavy industry. when good farming land was already taken, migration to cities and mining region, where industrial, attractive jobs were available, was increasing. This rural-to-urban migration lasted until at least the 1940s.
From the 1910s to the late 1960s, due to the lack of perspectives in the South, resulting, among others, from Jim Crow’s laws, African Americans migrated from the South to Chicago by the hundreds of thousands.
From the mid 1920s to mid 1960s, when immigration to the USA was brought to an end except for certain chosen groups, the ethnic pattern of Chicago has changed. After World War II, many Japanese Americans, who had been detained in so called relocation camps during the war, wanted to settle in Chicago, resigning from return home to the unwelcoming West Coast. Also European DPs (“displaced persons”) from Eastern and Central Europe were looking for family members living in Chicago who would assist then in starting their life anew. Nevertheless, migration, for example, from Poland and Ireland, has never stopped. It was due to two factors: chain character of migrations, and crucial role of church in organizing settlement in the Midwest. Polish and Irish church organizations also helped Latinos making a fresh start in the Midwest by opening their parishes to them. In the case of Latinos also chain migration pattern can be observed. Chicago attracts Latinos Europeans and the suburbs keep spreading. Nowadays, Latinos are the second biggest ethnic group in Chicago.
Ethnic diversity of Chicago is still growing, but does the same happens with integration? Professor Conzen points at great importance of preserving ethnic identity by migrants and their children, and the role of church-centered organizations, initiatives and schools in keeping up real, not symbolic, ethnicity. Due to many unanswered questions about the character of American culture and social processes taking place in migrant communities, the issues of Americanization of migrant communities, its drawbacks and advantages, and eventually its efficiency, still remain unsolved.
Joanna Krawczyk


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